It was an extraordinary experience to be present at the Holy Father’s recent visit to the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) in Dublin.

WMOF is a gathering of the Catholic Church that has occurred every three years since 1994. Its aim is to promote the pastoral care of families and to protect their rights and dignity. It is the biggest gathering of Catholic families in the world. This year it was held in Dublin.

I feel there were two overarching themes in Dublin – joy and sorrow


Alas, if you watched the unremittingly (and, to an extent, understandably) hostile media in Ireland, you would scarcely have detected the word “joy”, or even the word “families”. The focus was wholly on the abuse issue. But this was not of course a state visit by Francis, or even primarily a pilgrimage to express sorrow. It was to support the WMOF, to show his solidarity with families and to underline the wonder and joy of family life.

How did he express this joy? Let me pick out a few examples.

Firstly, by emphasis during his visit on his teaching in Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) (see my previous blog). Again and again in the document Francis speaks of the joy of married and family life:

“In marriage, the joy of love needs to be cultivated. Joy increases our pleasure and helps us find fulfilment…marital joy can be experienced even amidst sorrow.”

And how about this: “When a man and a woman celebrate the sacrament of marriage, God is as it were mirrored in them; he impresses in them his own features and the indelible character of his love”

Time and again Francis stressed that the Church must meet people and families exactly where they are, very often in the “mess” of strained relationships and non-traditional partnerships – to help those lost and on the margins, like a loving shepherd.

It is so important that we do what we can to support Francis in his advocacy of marriage and the family, especially because the church in the past has given so little practical support in this sphere.

Secondly, by listening to the People of God: Throughout the Congress couples gave moving testimony of their married life. How they had overcome the often grave difficulties we all face by means of forgiveness, tenderness, commitment, hard work, openness and trust. Francis listened and responded, sharing the joy these couples felt in their unity and togetherness. He stands with them.

Pope Francis at Croke Park

Pope Francis at Croke Park

Thirdly by means of the huge celebration of families at Croke Park Stadium. You don’t often see together Riverdance, Andrea Bocelli and the Holy Father! It was a wonderful night of rejoicing and the Pope gave an inspiring talk on the demands and joys of family life.

Fourthly it was a particular joy for our pilgrimage group to be able to venerate the relics of Saint Therese and her mum and dad, the only married couple ever to be canonised. These had been brought to Ireland especially to mark the WMOF.

Saints Therese, Louis and Zelie Martin

Saints Therese, Louis and Zelie Martin

Fifthly – In the huge exhibition halls it was wonderful to see a huge number of Catholic organisations displaying their books and literature and discussing their various aims and objectives, and to encounter so many young people filled with joy and enthusiasm for the faith – an extremely positive indication that the Church is very much alive.

So joy then, but also, of course, SORROW:

The Holy Father at times seemed to be bearing on his shoulders the whole weight of the abuse scandals in Ireland and throughout the world. He took every opportunity to express his profound sorrow and shame, but most movingly at the Phoenix Park Mass when, at the Penitential Rite, he spoke in Spanish, his own language. I cannot tell you how moving it was to listen to his words. Here is a short extract:

“We ask forgiveness for those children who were taken away from their mothers and for all those times when so many single mothers who tried to find their children, or those children who tried to find their mothers, were told that this was a mortal sin. It is not a mortal sin. We ask forgiveness”

“May the Lord preserve and increase our sense of shame and repentance and grant us the strength to ensure that it never happens again and that justice is done. Amen”.

The Great Reformer

On returning home we were discussing the visit with one of our daughters. She asked us point blank how we could stay in a church that is responsible for all this abuse. This sort of question tends to focus the mind. The only thing I could really say to her was to quote that lovely passage in John, when Jesus asks his friends if they‘re going to leave him too. And Peter jumps up and says: “to whom should we go? You have the message of eternal life”. Because of course in the end it’s Jesus’s church not ours.

And also, it’s no good blaming the Pope or the Magisterium or this or that bishop for the abuse – given that we are all one body (see especially 1 Corinthians 12: 12-27). We must all take our share of responsibility, we must all atone in our own way. As Archbishop Malcolm said at the end of the recent Adoremus Mass in Liverpool: we must go out and walk erect, but with our heads bowed in penance. And the Cardinal said even more strikingly: “Today I come as a beggar seeking forgiveness”.

Pope Francis at St Mary’s Pro Cathedral Dublin

Pope Francis at St Mary’s Pro Cathedral Dublin

Clearly, however, action by Pope Francis must now follow quickly and decisively.

Nevertheless, I rejoice because Francis is, I believe, a great reformer and he will indeed respond swiftly and strongly. Significantly, he tells us in his documents Amoris Laetitia and Gaudete et Exsultate not to be utterly strung up on doctrine and rules but rather to focus on helping the marginalised. And he tells us he is listening to the People of God:

“(our understanding and expression) of doctrine is not a closed system devoid of the dynamic capacity to pose questions, doubts, inquiries…The questions of our people, their suffering, their struggles, their dreams, their trials, their worries, all possess an interpretational value that we cannot ignore if we want to take the principle of the incarnation seriously. Their wondering helps us to wonder, their questions question us. (Gaudete et Exsultate para 44).

Socius Novus

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